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  5. What is a restrictive noseband and how does it harm horses?

What is a restrictive noseband and how does it harm horses?

Restrictive or ‘crank’ nosebands, which are increasingly being used in the equestrian disciplines of dressage, show jumping and eventing, are designed to prevent horses from opening their mouths during competition. ‘Crank’ nosebands have a pulley mechanism that allows them to be fastened so tightly that they apply excessive and continuous pressure around the horse’s nose and jaw area. Restrictive nosebands can cause pain and distress to horses.

The main reasons for riders using restrictive nosebands is to reduce the likelihood of horses opening their mouths in the competition arena as this can attract a penalty, as well as giving the rider greater control as they help to prevent the horse from moving their tongue over the bit [1]. However, the use of these nosebands has been found to cause significant discomfort, distress and injury to the horse.  

Research has indicated that the use of restrictive nosebands prevents horses from performing basic behaviours such as yawning, licking and even swallowing. When applied with excess pressure, evidence indicates that these nosebands can cause both physical injury and psychological stress. A recent study has shown that horses exhibited behaviours that were denied whilst the restrictive noseband was applied, such as yawning and swallowing, at a much higher frequency after the noseband was removed, compared to normal baseline levels [2]. In addition, physiological measurements from this study also demonstrated that the restrictive nosebands cause stress, providing further evidence that these nosebands compromise welfare. It has also been observed that in a bid to find comfort, horses may fight against the constraint of the noseband, increasing the risk of damage to the nasal bones. As nosebands are rarely used alone, the additional effects of rein tension, martingales or draw reins may further increase pressure on the horse and negatively affect both their behaviour and welfare and should be considered [1].

Excessively tight nosebands can also result in the inside of the cheeks being cut by the teeth causing pain and lacerations. In severe cases, damage to bony structures can lead to significant pain and discomfort. Research undertaken in Ireland and Australia has shown that the resulting pressure from applying a ‘crank’ noseband, was comparable to the level which has been associated with causing nerve damage and other complications in humans [3]. A recent study was performed with 144 warmblood horses aged from 3 to 18 years being trained for dressage, show jumping, and eventing at an equine high-performance centre; the gear for these horses generally involves a curb bit and a cavesson noseband. The horses had a clinical and radiographic examination of their nasal bones and mandibles [4]. The radiographic results found bone thinning at the site of nosebands in the nasal bones, whereas palpable and radiographic bone thinning was more apparent in the mandible. The authors recommended further investigation into the effects of nosebands on bony structures.

Many riding manuals and competition rulebooks previously applied the ‘two finger’ rule, where the noseband is loose enough to allow at least two fingers to be easily slipped under it. However, in recent years this rule has been removed as it was not consistently measurable. Within FEI-sanctioned horse sports, there are no consistent guidelines for noseband tightness. The Dressage guidelines for gear do detail the types of nosebands permitted, mandating double bridles at the elite level, and that “a noseband may never be so tightly fixed that it causes harm to the horse”. However, until governing bodies articulate how nosebands may cause such harm, this guideline is difficult to monitor and enforce. Eventing, Show jumping, Polo, Camp-drafting and Racing specify only what types of nosebands are permitted, but the acceptable tightness of nosebands for these disciplines is not explicitly stated [5, 6]. RSPCA Australia supports the International Society for Equitation Science’s position on restrictive nosebands which proposes changes to competition rules to require the routine use of a taper measuring gauge by competition stewards to measure the tightness of the noseband and prevent the use of restrictive nosebands. It should be noted that noseband tightness can only be measured on the nasal bone (frontal, top of the noseband), and not along the side of the face, as this will give riders an inaccurate measure of fit.

A recently published paper has confirmed that many competitors in equestrian events are disregarding the potential dangers of using tight nosebands [7]. The study of 750 horses in Ireland, UK and Europe showed that 44% of horses had nosebands which were so tight that the measuring gauge could not be inserted and only 7% passed the ‘two finger’ rule. The highest proportion of very tight nosebands was found in horses used for eventing, with the lowest level in performance hunters. This study raises serious concerns regarding the short- and long-term effects on the behaviour and health of horses subjected to very tight nosebands.


[1] Weller D, Franklin S, Shea G et al (2020) The reported use of nosebands in racing and equestrian pursuits. Animals 10, 776.

[2] Fenner K, Yoon S, White P, Starling M, McGreevy P (2016) The effect of noseband tightening on horses’ behavior, eye temperature and cardiac responses. PLoS ONE doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154179

[3] Casey V, McGreevy PD, O’Muiris E, Doherty O (2013) A preliminary report on estimating the pressures exerted by a crank noseband in the horse. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 8:479-484.

[4] Perez-Manrique L, Leon-Perez K, Zamora-Sanchez E (2020) Prevalence and distribution of lesions in the nasal bones and mandibles of a sample of 144 riding horses. Animals 10, 1661. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/9/1661/htm

[5] Fédération Equestre Internationale (2019) Dressage Rules: 25th Edition.

[6] Racing Australia (2019). Register of Nationally Approved Gear. Racing Victoria.

[7] Doherty O, Casey V, McGreevy P, Arkins S (2017) Noseband use in equestrian sports – An international study. PLoS ONE 12(1) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169060

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Updated on September 9, 2022
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